The Unending Wheel Of Laddership

Posted by Anne-Marie Pandya on Aug 3, 2017
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[Melissa Stephens is a middle-school teacher and author of a recently published children's book Little Miss and Spirit Bear's Kiss, and an active volunteer. Little known fact about her is that she has starred in two original one-woman shows. She is a proud mother of Garrett, JJ and Fif -- and husband, Sean, has served 4 tours in Afghanistan as a member of the US Army. When I visited Kent Middle School last year, it was clearly evident why all her students absolutely adore "Ms Stephens" and crowd her classroom even in the break time. Last week, she shared her story of walking into ServiceSpace, three years ago, and the remarkable laddering that continues to unfold. What an honor to know her!]

I have been laddered from the moment that I first met everyone. Most recently, I created a class on Service Innovation, but whenever they say I did it, I always add, "But really, all my friends at ServiceSpace created it. I didn't create anything. I just took everything that I have learned here and that was modeled for me, and I presented it to the kids."

Jane, in our last circle, asked me, "How did you come to ServiceSpace?" I was telling her I had this read this energy experiment book called E-Squared. Have any of you ever read it? Okay, it's so hilarious because it's so like, "Spirituality for dummies." My level. :) In one of the experiments they did about leaving gifts somewhere without waiting to see who got them, Nipun's story was mentioned. Pam Grout, the author, then said, "One of the greatest examples of gift ecology is Karma Kitchen in the Berkeley area." And I was like, "Berkeley? That's right near me!"

I had no idea Nipun was such a big baller. Like zero idea at all. I didn't do any research. I imagine that when he received my first email, he probably read it like, "Hiya Missster Mehta. I read about you, like, in E-Squared. I love what you're doing. I'm totally all about kindness too. I was wondering if you would want to come to our school and speak." Still no clue, right? "XOXO, Melissa." I don't even think it was a day, I got an email back from Nipun, so I was definitely was thinking, "Well, he's definitely not a baller because he wouldn't be sending me an email right back! Right?!?" He was like, "Well, I'm gonna be out of town, but I will get Audrey in touch with you, who kind of handles all the education et cetera." I was like, "Awesome, that would be great."

So Audrey called and we talked about everything I wanted to do. And then I got an email that happened to be the week of a ServiceSpace retreat, and she said, "Would you like to come to the community night dinner, and bring your husband?" I was like, "Oh, that would be great." But still totally unsure of what Servicespace is, still did no research, none. Which is probably really good in hindsight, because I may have come in really nervous.

I carpooled with Ari, because it turned out that he lives right down the street from us. Our boys even played our tee ball against each other last year. Ari was telling us all about Pancho and I was like, "Oh my god." I was so excited. And my husband's very military, very Catholic, and I came to him like, "It's totally not a cult. I'm sure it's not a cult. Just go with it. It'll be fine." Of course, the first guy we meet was Sam with a big beard, and I was like, "Okay, it might be a cult." LOL I'm kidding. Audrey was great, and John. We were kind of like, "Let's go explore." Then, we were hanging out over by the labyrinth and all of a sudden Nipun came over, but I didn't know it was Nipun. He was like, "Oh, are you Melissa with the wheel of kindness?" (It something I had created at school). He gives us this big hug and I was like, "Oh, awesome."

We came in and we had an incredible dinner followed by a circle of sharing. It was then that I first realized who Pancho was, because he introduced himself. He said, "My family calls me Pancho. And if this is the last time we see each other, I'd like you to know that I love you all." I wondered what he was going to say, but he just gazed in silence at every single pair of eyes, clock-wise. My husband and I were sitting on one side, and I felt like being a little girl waiting in line to sit in Santa's lap. I was somehow just waiting till he got to me. When he was looking at the person next, I was like, "Next!" And ... I don't know how he did it, or what even he did in that second ... there was so much, I just felt so like it was just the two of us. And the instant thought I had was, "That's what I want to do for my students." I even blogged about that back in 2015: Pancho's Look of Love

Yeah, that was the first thing and then Audrey had said, "Oh, you should look into this Laddership Circle that we do," and I was like, "Okay." The dinner that night -- everything -- was amazing. I went home just so excited, and the Laddership Circle happened to be October so it was maybe two months later or so, and I was like, "God, I should probably look up what this whole ServiceSpace thing is."

So I'm at my computer and my husband's in the room and I pull up and the first picture I land at is Nipun receiving the award from the Dalai Lama! I go, "Babe. Oh my god, I'm an idiot." And he's like, "What?" I'm like, "I wrote this everyday email to this guy who is connected to the Dalai Lama!"

I think that's the beauty of ServiceSpace -- the humility. That ultimately leads to valuing everyone's gift. So what if you're still reading baby spirituality books, you know? I really felt like I could offer something meaningful in this space.

My Laddership experience was incredible. In January, I volunteered at Karma Kitchen and I was like, "God, I wish I had this when I was younger." I'm almost 50. It took me so long to get on this path, and I wish I had it when I was younger. Then, I thought, "How can I make this a class? Laddership, Karma Kitchen, DailyGood, everything -- for middle school kids. I've gotta lay it out within our district." If you want to teach a class, you better have it ready to explain to the school board. So I just started kind of putting together this class, really 100% based on ServiceSpace principles.

Last year, when I came to the community night, four people did opening ceremony with four different traditions. And then, before we closed, John did something similar to Pancho: "I'm gonna go around and I'm gonna say to each of you, 'I see you,' and you'll respond, 'I'm here.'" He did that and I was like, "Yes." So that's how I take role in this service class. I call their name and I'll say, "Nipun, I see you," and he'll say, "I'm here," and that's how I know we they're here or not.

I put together this whole proposal for the Service Innovation class and I crafted it all out. I'm really blessed to have a big-hearted principal and a school district that's very open. As long as you show them how it's gonna work, they're very open to accepting it -- and they approved this 7th grade enrichment class!

The ways that you all have laddered me over the past year is unbelievable. Audrey really is my go-to. I don't even know how old she is. She could be 40 or 14. She's ageless to me. Sometimes I feel like her mom, sometimes I feel like her daughter, but no matter what, I will email her with anything and she's right there. I'm like, "What? How? Does she sleep? Does she drink coffee all day?" I don't know.

I joined Laddership Circle as a fellow, and then I was a blogger which I really loved, and then Audrey asked if I would anchor one. I was so scared. I was like, "Oh my god, I can't anchor. I'm not that ServiceSpace." She was like, "No, it'll be great," so I gave it a go. Birju and I were actually anchoring together and any time I had any questions, I would just say, "Audrey, I don't know. What do you think this means?" And she always is right there, so everyone here is my ladder, but Audrey's is like ladder ladder. :)

So naturally, in my class, I put all of the desks in a circle. That way we all have to see each other. We start with "I see you. I'm here." I'll pull like KarmaTube videos and then have them do reflections on Google Classroom, which then they can answer back and comment back on each other's comment. Sometimes I'll pull maybe one of the articles. I pulled the "Eight Forms of Capital" one time and I had them do improv skits because I also teach drama. Shocking, I know. But I was like, "Okay, put this in a middle school 7th grade reference. Show me what spiritual capital would like in this." So the kids went up there and one kid drops his pencil on the ground and the other kid picks it up and says, "Hey. You dropped your pencil. Oh, that's good karma, and that's spiritual capital." And I'm like, "Yes. Yes."

Often, when I'm not sure about something, I'll just put it out to them. "What do you guys think?" And kids will always teach you, always, so much more than you ever think you can teach them.

Their final exam is putting on a Kent Community Kitchen, which is just like a Karma Kitchen. They have to print their own menu. Now, it's a simplified menu with pasta, salad and baked goods. And they have water and lemonade. After the menu, I show them the original Karma Kitchen bill, but then ask them, "You have to put this in your own words." So each class had a little different flavor to how they present the bill but it's always, "It's been paid forward from the person before you."

They wait on the tables. Oh my god, I was gonna do buffet-style, but they're like, "No, let us wait on the tables." I was thinking, "That is gonna be a nightmare." But it was amazing. I got them little aprons and they have the leather check thingies. Oh, we used those exact heart pins. When the people come to the door, we have greeters. We have hosts and hostesses who seat them and we have waiters, so the greeters put on the heart pins, "Welcome to Kent Community Kitchen" ... So I really have 100% ripped off everything, let's be clear. I'm always taking note. This year, when Richard said, "It takes two to see one," I was like, "Yes, that's going to be week one."

At the end, they had to decide what to do with the surplus. The first trimester we had to kinda reimburse the kids for their expenses. But now, a third of it goes to that, a third will be paid forward to the next class so they don't have to buy the basic supplies, and then a third of it will go to whatever charity feels important to them. They present to the class, get everyone's approval and donate it.

The first trimester, they picked pancreatic cancer research, because one of the boys had lost his grandfather to pancreatic cancer that summer. They also individual projects and I do make them do gift ecology with that. It's a bit like "Pay what you want," but we have to do a little more educating because kids being kids they will put in a quarter and take six baked goods. :) It is middle school. That trimester, when we went to hand it directly to the doctor at the pancreatic cancer program. So it makes it just really real life.

Everything that I feel here at ServiceSpace, I try to pay forward to my students.

And the greatest ripple I see is when parents come up to me after each trimester and say, "Oh my god, thank you so much for having this class. Every day my child comes home and tells me what you're doing, what you guys discussed. They showed us that video." I was never really gonna ever be in a situation to ladder those parents, right? But suddenly we have all these 12-year-olds who are laddering their parents and beyond, right?

So it's kind of like, next-generation ServiceSpace.

Thank you all so so much.

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Comments (11)

  • Birju Pandya wrote ...

    wow. so glad i got to read this!!

  • Nipun Mehta wrote ...

    Ms Stephens, you are a total baller yourself. Thanks for all the energy and love you bring to every interaction you have, and for your heart that is constantly paying it forward to the next generation. Big hugs!

  • Richard Whittaker wrote ...

    You go, girl!!

  • Melissa Stephens wrote ...

    I cannot believe you transcribed all this!! I am so humbled and grateful :) I love you all so very very much!! You fill my life with such joy! Xoxo

  • Melissa Stephens wrote ...

    For the record the girl behind me in the bottom pic in the falcon costume with her face in her hand is my daughter :) she was in 8th grade and had no idea I was in the costume! Haha!!

  • Virginia May-Schiros wrote ...

    Melissa, you are one amazing person! I am so privileged to have met you and to call you my roommate and friend! :-)

  • Audrey Lin wrote ...

    Melissaaaaaaaaaa! So grateful to know you! It's a gift to read and hear and witness the beautiful ways in which you are sowing seeds of these values in youth. :) And absolutely love the photo of you as the falcon and your daughter's surprised response. :-)

  • Xiaojuan Shu wrote ...

    How wonderful to read this! It made me smile and laugh several times during the reading, very heartwarming and inspiring! Thank you!

  • Yoo-Mi Lee wrote ...

    Melissa - your energy, enthusiasm, and spirit shine through in this telling. Kindness rules!

  • Ameeta Martin wrote ...

    Melissa - you are the kind of teacher every parent wishes their kid had!!

  • chris johnnidis wrote ...

    This was such a JOY to read, I was smiling and laughing out loud. And that last picture, with your daughter good-naturedly face-palming and you in the mascot costume...priceless. Great to see you at the educator's retreat, Melissa, looking forward to more stories from you.